Friday, October 27, 2006

"Cowboys and Indians" and "Tacos and Tequilas"

In the last few hours, several people have found my blog by doing an Internet search using these terms:

"indian war paint for halloween"
"american indian halloween costume face paint"
"american indian war paint"
"halloween indian face paint example with picture"

I read this data as I ponder recent events on the UIUC campus. The Greek (fraternity and sorority) Houses are a significant element here. They have events in which a frat and sorority get together around a specific theme.

This practice started to come to awareness last year, with a "ghetto" party in which the (mostly) white students in the Greek system organized a party where they dressed up like "ho's and thugs."

This year, another party was exposed. This is the "Tacos and Tequila" party (publicly called a Fiesta). This time, students dressed as pregnant Mexican women. Some students attached little brown dolls to their shirts. Males dressed as "farmers" or "gardeners" --- the words they use publicly for what they privately said was "wetbacks" and "illegals." Of course, there is a heavy amount of liquor involved in this get together. Also coming to light are "Cowboys and Indians" parties.

From a rather disturbed perspective this afternoon, I feel some anxiety over what all of this says about society. What are we doing such that this sort of thing takes place? It isn't happening just here. The parties are happening on campuses across the nation.

Those who wrote to me saying that my posts about dressing up like Indian are hypersensitive.... please rethink that response. It isn't the innocent act you think it is.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gerald McDermott's ARROW TO THE SUN

Gerald McDermott’s Arrow to the Sun won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1978.

Awarded annually by the American Library Association, the Caldecott Medal is given to the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States during the preceding year. My guess is that most public and elementary school libraries order at least one copy of every book that has won the Caldecott. Many of these books are also made available in video and audio format. Due to their visibility and award-winning status, teachers use them extensively. For example, I did an internet search using “Arrow to the Sun”+K12. (K12 is one way of locating school web pages.) The search returned 23,200 hits.

Its popularity and acclaim aside, Arrow to the Sun has many problems. For Pueblo people, kivas are places of ceremony and instruction, not places of trial. However, in McDermott’s kivas, the protagonist must prove himself by fighting lions, serpents, bees, and lightning in four different kivas.

I think most teachers, prepping to use this book, would know that kivas are not scary places, but more like a church or temple. Hopefully, that teacher will pause as she reads the story, to tell her students that McDermott’s representation of a kiva is wrong. Fortunately for her students, they will have had a valuable experience, as they learn to question the books they read, no matter how popular they may be.

Course, it is award-winning because the people who selected the book, and the reviewers who gave it a favorable review don't know much, if anything, about Pueblo culture!

What if the teacher does not know anything about Pueblo kivas, and therefore, doesn’t question McDermott’s presentation? I think that her students are harmed by this misinformation. They will come away with a concept of kivas that is incorrect.

If one of her students should visit a pueblo on a vacation, he or she might express fear upon seeing a kiva.

And, what about Pueblo Indian children in this or any classroom where the book is used?

They, too, are harmed, but in a different way. Most likely, they know the story is wrong. How might they grapple with the error? Will they challenge or question the teacher, who is an authority figure they’ve been taught to respect? How might they feel, when asked to participate in a small group discussion on “how do you think the protagonist felt going into the kiva?” Will the child be distracted and unable to focus on school assignments in general?

Another problematic area of Arrow to the Sun is the status of the protagonist. In the story, the protagonist is mocked and chased away by other boys in the pueblo who say to him “Where is your father?” and “You have no father.” This conflict is the impetus for the boy’s journey to the sun. However, the conflict is one that does not reflect Pueblo family structure and values. The concept of illegitimacy does not exist. Children in Pueblo communities are born into large extended families. The stain of illegitimacy is European, not Puebloan.

If there is a copy of Arrow to the Sun in your school or classroom library, read it, and think about what I’ve shared here. I know some will reject what I’ve said as unimportant. It is, after all, a great story, but I hope others will reconsider using that book as “a great story” and use it as a tool in educating children about how authors and illustrators can get things wrong.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Jeanette Armstrong's DANCING WITH THE CRANES

[Note: This review is used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author. Dancing with the Cranes is available from Oyate, a non-profit organization.]

Armstrong, Jeannette (Okanagan), Dancing with the Cranes, illustrated by Ron Hall (Okanagan/Thompson). Theytus Books, 2005, unpaginated, color paintings, grades 2-up.


Last year, Chi’ and her Temma had come to the lake to watch the birds, and the geese had come so close that they could almost touch her. But now Temma is gone, Chi’s momma is expecting a baby, and none of the birds pay any attention to her. And the sound of a loon especially makes Chi’ feel like crying. The cranes come back in their season, but Temma is never coming back. 

As Momma helps her see the continuity of birth, life and death, Chi’ begins to understand that the cranes that come back every year may not all be the same individual cranes, and like the song of the cranes, “her Temma would always be inside of her." 

Hall’s stylized acrylic paintings are a stunning complement to this gentle, but deep, little story. Full-color pictures in shades of blue, brown and green with red and yellow highlights alternate with text pages on solid colors that complement those in the illustrations. And a “cutout” on each of the text pages further lend continuity to the illustrations. Like the traditional faceless Indian dolls, the artwork allows the young reader to imagine the characters’ facial expressions. In three pictures, a small design on the front of Momma’s dress draws the reader’s eye to where the beginning of a baby is growing. And the picture of Temma dancing with the cranes is awesome in its simplicity and beauty.

—Beverly Slapin

Monday, October 23, 2006

Thomas King's A COYOTE COLUMBUS STORY

If you read comments to AICL's blog posts, you'll see that Fuse #8 (that's Betsy Bird, of School Library Journal) posted this comment to the Oct. 11th, 2006 blog about Columbus Day:
"I'd just like to point out that I'm very very fond of "A Coyote Columbus Story" by Thomas King. If you haven't seen this picture book, you might do well to give it a glance."
King's book is terrific. My dear friend and colleague, Jean Mendoza, has an essay about it in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. The essay, titled "Goodbye, Columbus: Take Two," discusses A Coyote Columbus Story and Jane Yolen's Encounter.

A gifted writer, Jean deftly critiques both books. Yolen is a powerful name in children's literature, and she's written many excellent books, but as Jean points out, Yolen's attempt to give readers a Taino perspective on Columbus ends up blaming the victim.

King's book is a far better choice. Some of you know that Coyote is a trickster. In this story, Coyote is a girl. Here's part of what Jean says:
A Coyote Columbus Story is no finger-pointing lament. None of its characters slouch in defeat with body parts morphing into thin air, as does the narrator at the end of Encounter. The reader sees indignation, not stoicism, on the faces of the people being kidnapped.
Your school or public library probably has a copy of Yolen's book, but not King's. Order a copy of A Coyote Columbus Story and a copy of A Broken Flute and read Jean's essay. You will gain insights that you can apply to other books.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

More on "I am part Native American"

On October 18th, I blogged about the phrase "I am part Native American." I will discuss the topic of Native identity in a series of posts. It is very complex, and filled with tension, but important. A statement claiming a Native identity is one that should be offered with a great deal of thought and care for several reasons.

One reason is the claim itself.

A lot of people say it, but, does the tribe they claim say it about them?

For example, I can say "I am Nambe Pueblo Indian" but I can also say "I am tribally enrolled." That means that Nambe claims me. They have listed me on the tribal census.

My family lineage was unbroken by any of the various efforts to assimilate American Indians into mainstream American society, and my tribe is among the tribes recognized by the US government. We are "federally recognized." You can read more about federal recognition at the webpage of the National Congress of American Indians.

I am what we call, in children's lit, an "insider" who can offer an "insider's perspective" based on a lived experience. I offer my critiques, reflections and reviews of children's books, teaching about American Indians, and playing Indian activities from a place of knowing that is enriched and informed by my experiences.

It is troubling to me when people say "I am Cherokee and I don't think there is anything wrong with dressing up like Indians at Halloween." In my experience, Cherokee people who are connected to their tribe generally don't say things like that.

My experience is that people who say "I am Native American and I don't see anything wrong...." are individuals for whom their claim to Native identity is based--not on their present day life--but on the great grandparent/ancestor situation. It seems to me that they are offering this claim to identity as a means to defend their use of what I feel is the inappropriate use or representation of American Indians.

As people charged with educating children and selecting books, we ought to pay attention to what we say and why we say it, what we claim, and why we claim it.

There's more to say about all of this another day. In the meantime, you may also want to read Oyate's statement on identity.

[Update, 12:54 PM, Oct. 23, 2006: Just above, I said "There's more to say about all of this another day" and I want to let you know that among the "more to say" is the idea of "federal" recognition, and "who can write" or retell stories about American Indians. ]